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Interview: Directors Nick Bruno & Troy Quane Talk ‘Spies in Disguise’

December 27, 2019Ben MK

Will Smith and Tom Holland have done each done their fair share of world-saving on their own, in such films as Avengers: Infinity War and Independence Day. Now, in Spies in Disguise, they're teaming up — with Smith playing a super suave super spy named Lance Sterling and Holland playing a super-smart scientist named Walter Beckett. The catch? Walter has just invented a way to alter the DNA of any living creature, and he's accidentally used it to turn Lance into, of all things, a pigeon.

I sat down with directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno to find out what it took to bring Spies in Disguise to life, from the star-studded cast to the music score, their film inspirations, and more.

Your movie is inspired by the short film Pigeon Impossible, but it's also quite different in terms of the actual story. Can you tell me a bit about how the movie came about and how it evolved?

Bruno: We really loved the short about James Bond having lunch and being interrupted by a pigeon; it was really, really funny. But when trying to figure out how to expand that into a big movie with a big story to tell, at first it was just like, "What if you turned him into a pigeon, from the gadget guy?" And that sounds a little ridiculous, but what are the benefits of that?

When you look at a character like James Bond, they often go solo. In the movie, Lance Sterling is a guy who flies solo but learns eventually at the end that we're better together than we are alone. A pigeon is a tremendous flock animal [with] amazing capabilities, too. And what we loved was that, when it comes to bringing people together, you add another character, Walter Beckett — the gadget guy — and teamwork can really save the day.

Quane: Conflict is the thing that drives the narrative forward. So the idea of taking the world's greatest spy and turning him into a pigeon, that's internal conflict. Add a gadget guy, that's more conflict. Make that gadget guy the guy that’s responsible for doing that, even more so. Now force them to go on the road together, it just creates the bed for comedy, conflict, action, adventure. It just created the foundation for the whole movie.

This is also the first feature film for both of you as directors, but you both have an extensive background working on animated films. How did you draw from that experience for this project?

Quane: Absolutely. We've both worked on the floor, as part of a department. We've animated and designed, worked in the story department, different aspects. So you start to build a feeling for what you like, what you don't like — the kind of tone, the kind of pacing, things that appeal to you. You learn all these little tricks, all of those things go into your toolbox. And once you get to direct, now you get to take those tools and really apply them. You can speak to the artists a little more directly, be a bit more clear with you communication, because making a film like this — we have 550 [of] the most talented artists in the industry back at Blue Sky — it's us having this song in our heads that we have to try and teach to 550 different people. So it really is using those tools to be able to communicate as clearly as possible what's up here in our heads so that they can help us execute the vision for the film.

Were there any other films that really inspired or influenced you when it came to crafting the tone and the style of the movie?

Bruno: The whole film is a love letter to all the spy movies — the [James] Bonds, the [Ethan] Hunts, the [Jason] Bournes. But also, a little more specifically, we really loved those animated title sequences of the movies. So we loved finding the DNA of that and how we permeate that into every frame of our film. But yeah, Skyfall was a big one. Anything that [Roger] Deakins does with light and composition is pretty amazing.

Quane: And then on top of that, it wasn't just spy movies, which we watched for fun 'cuz we just loved the movies. It's also a buddy comedy, so watching Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Midnight Run or Lethal Weapon [and] seeing the interplay between two lead characters — finding those little moments, those rhythms — was also really inspiring.

You have an amazing cast, and I really loved how many of them use their native accents. Can you tell me what they each brought to the film, and what it was like working with them, especially Will Smith and Tom Holland?

Quane: Those guys were amazing. They say, "Don't meet your heroes," but it doesn't count with this cast. We really lucked out. As Nick was saying, we needed to create a character who could go shoulder-to-shoulder with Bond and Bourne and Hunt. You need someone with a huge presence, who's got charisma and a little bit of arrogance, but is charming and funny. And we just kept going back to heroes we used to love growing up, and Will Smith just kept coming up. He was the one person who could take all that on and really stand next to all those other characters.

Then we needed someone to contrast that — someone who is a little naive, a little awkward, a little socially inept, but at the same time is a super genius. We needed someone who you could really feel the sincerity from, and we heard Tom's performance and we fell in love. He brings such confidence and comedic timing, but he's such a sincere actor. And both of them are great storytellers, so they were great partners, not just in performances but in how we brought these characters to life, how we moved the story forward.

And the fun about spy movies is that they're global, and we really wanted to feel that texture in the mosaic of the movie. So we wanted to hear different accents. That's why when we approached Karen Gillan we said, "No, no, we want you to use your Scottish accent." We talked to Ben [Mendelsohn], and we said, "Use your Australian, we want that to come through." We went to Masi Oka and said, "Our villain is Japanese, we want someone who can speak naturally in that language." We really wanted to feel the whole world and the texture of that. Including Reba [McEntire], who brings the South with that twang. It just makes the movie feel bigger, it makes the world feel bigger.

On top of the performances, the music also adds a lot to the movie. How did you come up with that specific feel for the film?

Bruno: When we started, we knew that music was such an integral part to the DNA of a spy film, whether it's that opening title sequence of just a killer score. So when we started coming up with the idea we would make mixtapes for each other, just for inspiration, for car chase sequences or whatever. And we started refining the musical taste in those mixtapes, and one name that kept on showing up over and over again was Mark Ronson. So when it came time to talk to music, we said, "Could we get someone like Mark Ronson to maybe created some music for us?" And we got a meeting with Mark and he was totally game for it. But what he does better than anybody is taking some of that throwback sound and making it contemporary in such a cool way. We absolutely love it.

The movie is full of action-packed and funny scenes. But which one was the most fun for you guys to work on?

Quane: The transformation scene is a lot of fun. It's crazy, it's character-driven, so there's a lot of back and forth with our two leads. But it just goes into wild, wacky, weird places. And once Lance actually does finally transform into a pigeon it's just so much fun to watch the bird figure out its own physicality and hear Will's performance when he's trying to figure out this new body. It's just a really fun, wacky sequence.

Bruno: That's definitely up there for me. The other one is the car chase, and I think it's just [because] it's a dream come true. It's so much fun to create a chase in an animated universe. There's really just four city blocks there that we drive around in; it's a lot of clever filmmaking and at the same time it's these two guys with their opposing philosophies having a lot of fun. So it's a lot of animated fun, a lot of cinematic fun, and great energy and editing. It just embodied a little bit of everything.

Last but not least, what kind of advice would you give for someone hoping to break into the world of animation?

Bruno: Create! Especially now, you have so much access to stuff to learn from. If you're a lighting artist, make light stuff. If you're a writer, write stuff. But use whatever you can to get it out there. And do a lot, try to be prolific. You learn a lot from doing more.

Quane: Absolutely true. That's really the only thing. Just feed your passion. Do the work. Because you learn as you go, and you get better as you do it.

Spies in Disguise is now in theatres.

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